Sunset Stories
Chapter 7: Outfaced

Copyright© 2016 by Scriptorius

He was lightning fast. Those who knew about such things rated him the quickest man with a gun the West had ever seen. Most put him well ahead of Ben Thompson, Wes Hardin, John Ringo, Wyatt Earp and other such luminaries. Some averred that, had chronology allowed a match to take place, even the great Wild Bill Hickok would have been far outclassed by this man. It was often claimed that he possessed a quality more akin to sorcery than gunplay.

His name was John Widdup and now, at the age of twenty-seven, he was at the height of his powers. He had killed eleven men in fair, one-to-one encounters. All of his victims had been either known gunfighters or aspirants to that status. Not one of them had come anywhere near beating Widdup. Only two had even managed to get off a shot and in each case it had been hardly more than a post mortem reflex, one bullet piercing a ceiling, the other a floor. Of the remaining nine men, five had been struck down with guns barely clear of their holsters.

Though he had always been fascinated by side-arms and shooting, Widdup had not set out to seek notoriety. However, his story was not an unfamiliar one. After his prowess had been demonstrated, albeit unwillingly and against a rash third-rater, he had become a target. Men just wanted to try him out. They were usually reckless fellows, intent on establishing who was faster, even if the reward for their curiosity was death.

So it became a way of life for John Widdup. No matter where he appeared, some firebrand with more bravado than brain would show up, call him out and pay the price. In the early days, he went to some pains to avoid any looming showdown. Later, recognising inevitability when he saw it, he made no such effort, preferring to push matters to a swift conclusion. Like a certain monarch, he reasoned that, if a thing had to be done, it was best done quickly.

Widdup did not rely solely on the exceptional talent seemingly bestowed upon him by nature. Realising that he was bound to be the object of some attention, he practised daily, always finding some place where he could use his Colt Peacemaker, kept in a silk-smooth holster. His repertoire did not include any fancy tricks, his phenomenal speed and pin-point accuracy being all he needed. There were other men who could shoot fast and straight – some gave public exhibitions of their skill – but few had the special kind of nerve required to stand still and put a bullet into a man who was blasting their way with a similar intention.

Wherever Widdup went, his reputation travelled with him, precluding steady work. He had to find some other way of getting along, so he became an outlaw. Being a man of modest needs and not very materialistic, he didn’t operate on a grand scale. He went to work only when he needed money, which he never hoarded. Sometimes it seemed to be almost an afterthought with him. When his pockets were empty, he had to fill them. His idea was that the fewer jobs he pulled off, the fewer lawmen would hunt him. With rare exceptions, his method succeeded.

To any detached observer, a hostile confrontation between John Widdup and Thaddeus Dorf would have seemed a vanishingly unlikely event, for neither the circles not the circuits of the two men would normally have intersected. They were as different as cheese and chalk and neither was aware of the other’s existence. But fate has a way of arranging these things and the two dissimilar characters were brought together by its machinations.

As to social life, Widdup was decidedly a man of the lower strata. Generally, he avoided pretentious places. Dark, smoky saloons, sawdust-covered floors, scarred deal bars and cheap rooming houses were his preferred surroundings. With regard to territory, he spent nearly all his time in Arizona, New Mexico or Texas, with occasional forays across the border into Sonora or Chihuahua. Only twice in nearly a decade of wandering had he been further north, each time pursued by a single lawman. He had fought off the first and outrun the second.

To all appearances, Thaddeus Dorf was Widdop’s direct opposite. He travelled extensively, always by the most comfortable means available, and patronised only the best hotels and restaurants. Thick carpets, polished hardwood, good food and drink attracted him like magnets. As far as was possible in his part of the world, he moved in the more genteel levels of society. Where there was not sufficient refinement to suit him, he added a touch of class by his own presence, usually managing to induce others to raise their standards, rather than himself descending to theirs. He normally operated in the Northwest and Midwest, seldom reaching further south or west than Cheyenne. On the occasion of his meeting with Widdup, he had left his customary haunts only to cover for an indisposed colleague.

Dorf’s parents had migrated from Austria to the United States shortly after his birth. His father was a medical practitioner, his mother a music teacher. Dorf himself, though extremely intelligent and energetic, had no taste for the protracted study involved in emulating the career of either parent. He decided early in life that he would have to find a way of assuaging his wanderlust, while also making a living.

Having identified the problem, Dorf soon found a neat solution. He contacted a Philadelphia company, prominent in the manufacturing and importing of medical supplies, becoming its representative for the area in which he wished to operate. He was outstandingly successful and soon added more agencies to his portfolio, eventually becoming the conduit for five companies in the medical field.

Dorf was a small man, barely five feet five inches tall and slightly built. He was a fastidious fellow, always immaculately dressed and groomed. Already at thirty-nine, his trim moustache and neat, short, pointed black beard were sprinkled with grey, adding to his general air of distinction. His quick, decisive way of speaking and exceptional command of language gained him respect from almost everyone he met.

It was almost noon on a hot dry July day in the thriving little community of Canford, Colorado. Thaddeus Dorf had arrived the evening before, full of dark thoughts about the likely standard of accommodation awaiting him on his initial visit to the town. This was also his first appearance anywhere in this area, which he had long considered the realm of outer darkness. He was to be pleasantly surprised, for this was a place of growing stature. Mining, timber and cattle interests had combined to make Canford, affluent. This was no here today, gone tomorrow boom town. The buildings were of dressed stone, neatly laid brick or well-finished timber, all constructed with a view to posterity. Most of the people were smartly turned out, clearly enjoying prosperity and seemingly imbued with a fair measure of civic pride.

Most agreeable of all, from Thaddeus Dorf’s point of view, was that the town boasted an excellent hotel, with first-class dining facilities. Although he intended spending only two days in Canford, Dorf was delighted, for his aversion to rough living was profound and he had no intention of trying to overcome it. Owing to his peppery nature, he was not slow to voice his distaste for standards which fell short of his requirements. It was really quite surprising how he had developed the art of getting people to do things for him that they would not do for anyone else.

There was no cause for complaint at the Grand Western Hotel. Dorf had enjoyed a good night’s rest and an early breakfast and had done brisk business in the town. He was now sitting in the hotel barroom, sipping a first-rate whiskey and feeling as mellow as his irascible temperament permitted. He had changed his mind about his midday meal, having first decided to eat in the hotel, then being seduced by enticing smells from an elegant-looking restaurant along the street. He would stroll along there when he had finished his drink.

It was at this point that John Widdup arrived in Canford, having finally shaken off a lawman, after a long chase. In due course, the officer would report his conclusion that the pursuit had used up too much of his time and enough public funds. His decision may have been influenced by growing concern about what might happen if he were ever to catch up with the notorious gunman, for meek submission was not a reaction to expected from Widdup.

As always on entering a town new to him, the desperado approached the place with caution. He set his horse to a slow plod along the main street, his eyes roving everywhere, ticking off the positions of the amenities he was most likely to need and the places he might wish to avoid.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Widdup would have sought out the meanest drinkery in town. That he did not do so on this occasion may have been attributable to his having noted the fact that this wealthy, tidy little community did not have much in the way of rough saloons. Or possibly he was simply too weary to make the effort to find one. Whatever the reason, he moved slowly northwards until he found himself outside the Grand Western Hotel.

He sat his horse for a full minute, taking stock. What he saw was a two-storey brick-built structure. At ground level, the entrance was flanked by two wide windows, divided into foot-square panes. The upper level had six narrower ones in similar style. Between the floors, running along most of the facade, was the name of the place, in large gilt letters.

Widdup nodded to himself. Too high-toned, but it would do for a quick drink before he saw to his horse. He dismounted, hitched the gelding, used his hat to beat dust from his clothes and crossed the sidewalk. Pushing open the pair of half-glazed doors, he entered a ten-foot square hallway, to the right of which was a small reception recess, now unattended. At the inner end were double doors with small glass panes, set from top to bottom in oak frames. Widdup opened the left-hand one, stepping quietly inside. It was a part of his survival equipment to be acutely observant and his eyes flickered around the room, taking in every significant detail.

He found himself in a combined lobby and bar, and noted that the interior of the place was as imposing as the frontage. The entrance hall, being midway along the street wall, created alcoves by the windows of what was overall a thirty-foot deep by twenty-five foot wide room.

The rear wall was taken up by, from left to right as incomers viewed it, a large iron stove, a door to a private room and a mahogany bar, fifteen feet long. The ceiling and all the walls were plastered and painted cream. Halfway along the left-hand wall were two further swing doors, matching those in the hallway and leading to the dining room. Hanging at each side of these doors was a painting. The right hand wall had neither door nor window. It bore two more paintings, between which hung a long-case rosewood clock, which had a pendulum with a large brass disc, swinging its tireless way through time.

Small circular oak tables and chairs were set on the polished pine floorboards around the perimeter of the room, leaving an open central space, most of which was covered by a large carpet with a multi-coloured medallion design in the middle, echoed in whorls at the corners, all on a dark-red background. Behind the bar was a shelf with an impressive array of bottles. Above this was a mirror, six feet wide by three feet high, bracketed by two advertising posters, one proclaiming the virtues of a leading make of whiskey, the other a brand of cigars, described as being fit for a king. This second one featured the head and upper body of a man in royal regalia, smoking one of the company’s products, his head adorned with a five-point crown, each tip set with a representation of a gemstone, half an inch in diameter.

Widdup took in all of this with one sweeping glance before turning his attention to the other occupants of the room. The barman, feigning activity with a towel, was tall, beefy and grey-haired. At a table close to the dining room doors, two middle-aged fellows with appearance of cattlemen sat, talking quietly. In the left alcove, seated alone, was a rotund man in a long black coat and flowered brocade vest. This was Judge Handley, who was not a judge and never would be, but was so called as a mark of respect. The only other person present was Thaddeus Dorf, sitting at a table near the clock.

Widdup was discomfited by these plush surroundings. For a moment, he hesitated, wondering whether he would be better advised to leave at once and seek some place better suited to his tastes. But thirst prevailed and he decided he would have one drink here, tend to his horse, then look elsewhere. He crossed the carpet, ordered a beer and a whiskey and took both glasses to a table between the cattlemen and Judge Handley. As soon as he had served Widdup’s drinks, the barman lifted his hinged access flap and hurried off into the dining area. He was absent for two minutes and looked ill at ease when he returned. A moment later, a man pushed one of the dining room doors half open, glanced at Widdup, turned his head to the barman, nodded, then withdrew quickly.

It was about then that noses began to twitch in the barroom. Judge Handley was the first affected, then the two cattlemen, then the barkeeper and finally, Thaddeus Dorf. Something was disturbing the pleasant atmosphere. It was a smell and it came from John Widdup. At the best of times, the dreaded gunman had never been a devotee of personal hygiene. Now, after a week-long dash over rough country in summer heat, even his none too particular standards had plumbed new depths. It wasn’t easy for one man to create a miasma sufficient to fill a room of that size, but Widdup managed it. He stank a mile high.

For a little while, no one seemed sure what, if anything, to do about this situation. The judge coughed, drummed his fingers on his table top and fidgeted. The barman began to hold his nose, as surreptitiously as a man can do such a thing. Finally, one of the cattlemen broke the silence. “Jesus,” he said, “somebody got a skunk around here, or something?”

The remark produced only an embarrassed silence for a moment, then the barman, looking alarmed, lifted his flap again and walked over to the two ranchers. Bending over their table, he mumbled something. Both men nodded. The barman went back to his post, pulled out a scrap of paper and a pencil, scribbled something and took it over to Judge Handley, who was sitting about eight feet from Widdup. The judge stared at the note for a moment, then stuffed it into his vest pocket, thanking the barman and dismissing him.

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